False Friends in Learner Corpora

A corpus-based study of English false friends in the written and spoken production of Spanish learners

by M Luisa Roca-Varela (Author)
©2015 Thesis 348 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 197


This book is conceived as a contribution to the general understanding of learner language. It presents an innovative approach to the study of English false friends. False friends are a current issue for those learning and working with languages since these lexical items may spring up in different contexts of our everyday life. The book identifies false friends in real samples of learner English, reflects on the difficulty of these words and illustrates the specific problems which should be addressed in the EFL classroom. The ultimate purpose of this book is to cast new light on both the skillful and awkward use of false friends in learner English.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • 1. False Friends in Applied Linguistics: Key Issues
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 Brief Notes on the Origin of False Friends
  • 1.3 False Friends as Difficult Words
  • 1.4 False Friends across and within Languages
  • 1.5 False Friends across Different Areas of Language Research
  • 1.5.1 False Friends and Psycholinguistic Research
  • 1.5.2 False Friends and Language Teaching
  • 1.5.3 False Friends and Lexicographical Research
  • 1.5.4 False Friends and Translation Studies
  • 2. False Friends: Terms, Definitions and Classifications
  • 2.1 Terminological Review of the Term “False Friends”
  • 2.2 Towards an Operational Definition of the Term
  • 2.3 False Friend Classifications
  • 2.3.1 Shortcomings of these Typologies
  • 2.3.2 Proposal of a New Categorization for English-Spanish False Friends
  • 3. Corpus-Based Study: English False Friends in the Written and Spoken Production of Spanish Learners
  • 3.1 Motivation
  • 3.2 Research Aims
  • 3.3 Research Instruments: Three Learner Corpora
  • 3.3.1 SULEC: One Online Software with Two Different Datasets
  • 3.3.2 ICLE and LINDSEI: Two Louvain-Based Softwares
  • 3.4 Procedure
  • 3.4.1 Stage I: Examination of Frequency Word Lists and FF-Centred Sources
  • 3.4.2 Stage II: Elaboration of a List of Basic False Friends
  • 3.4.3 Stage III: Analysis of Items through Three Learner Corpora
  • 3.4.4 Stage IV: Quantitative and Qualitative Data Analysis
  • 3.5 Results
  • 3.5.1 Quantitative Results
  • 3.5.2 Qualitative Results
  • 3.6 Major findings
  • 4. Approaching False Friends Pedagogically: Suggested Tasks
  • 4.1 Presentation Tasks
  • 4.2 Practice-Production Tasks
  • 4.3 Knowledge-Expansion Tasks
  • 5. Conclusions, Pedagogical Implications and Further Research
  • 5.1 Main Conclusions
  • 5.2 Pedagogical Implications: Action in the EFL Classroom
  • 5.3 Issues for Further Research
  • References
  • Appendix A: False Friends in Written Corpora
  • Appendix B: False Friends in Spoken Corpora
  • Series index

← 6 | 7 →


I am sincerely grateful to Ignacio M. Palacios Martínez for his support and guidance during the elaboration of this book. Deepest gratitude is also due to Teresa Fanego Lema (University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain), Carlos Prado Alonso (University of Valencia, Spain), Gaëtanelle Gilquin (Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium) and Manuel Rubén Chacón Beltrán (University of Distance Learning) for their insightful comments on the previous work which gave way to the present volume. I would also like to thank James Milton and Tess Fitzpatrick from the University of Swansea Wales and Pedro José Chamizo Domínguez and Encarnación Postigo Pinazo from the University of Málaga for providing me with direction and very useful materials and information resources.

I am truly indebted and thankful to Marcos Calaza Montes; his encouragement, patience, tireless support and affection were extremely important to me. And a very special thanks to my parents for their motivation, love and encouragement throughout my whole life.

A final word of thanks for the financial support received from the Spanish Ministry of Education (reference number AP2007–04477), the European Regional Development Fund and the Autonomous Government of Galicia (Directorate General for Scientific and Technological Promotion, grants 2006/14–0, 2008/047, CN2011/011), the General Secretariat for Research and Development of the Autonomous Government of Galicia (reference number: PGIDIT05PXIB20401 PR; INCITE08PXIB204033PR), the European Commission (reference grant: 135507-LLP-1-2007-1-IT-KA2K) and the Galician Ministry of Culture and Education (reference number: 2012-PG073) for financial assistance during the writing process.

Thank you to all these people and institutions. Without their help I would not have been able to complete this book. ← 7 | 8 →

← 8 | 9 →


← 10 | 11 →

1.   False Friends in Applied Linguistics: Key Issues

1.1   Introduction

Lexis has been long disregarded by language teachers in traditional English classrooms. However, in the last decades of the 20th century, linguists and researchers started to show a growing interest in the role of lexical acquisition in language teaching which has lasted up to the present (Nation, 1990; Lewis, 1993; Ellis, 1994; Singleton, 1999; Schmitt, 2000; Bogaards and Laufer, 2004). In fact, vocabulary is now considered as a central issue for language learners to be effective and accurate in the communication process. The present study acknowledges the prominent role of word knowledge while analysing the interlinguistic phenomenon of false friends. False friends (FF henceforth) are lexical items in different languages that resemble each other in form but have different meanings (Chalker and Weiner, 1996; O’Neill and Casanovas, 1997; Colman, 2009).

Despite the fact that false friends have a long tradition in language research, these words are a current issue for those learning and working with languages since they can be found in many contexts of our modern life, including the names of public buildings (e.g. French Hôtel de Ville “city townhall”), the titles of famous songs (e.g. Ai se eu che pego1 “if I catch you”), some road signs (Swedish farthinder “speed bump”), or the daily news (e.g. David Beckham’s career in pictures2). Thus, English headlines, such as “Highly processed foods advertised as “low fat” are often loaded with cheaply added excess sugars and preservatives ← 11 | 12 → or “Medical students should have more lectures on nutrition” might cause episodes of momentary confusion among Spanish speakers who are not really proficient in English due to the presence of words such as preservative or lecture. These two English words are very similar and almost orthographically identical to Spanish preservativo “contraceptive rubber” and lectura “reading.” Therefore, if we look into the senses of these words in both languages, we observe that the resemblance is only superficial.

The previous examples are just a symbolic representation of the thousands of situations in which false friends may occur and produce misunderstandings among speakers with different language backgrounds. Such language problems should be detected and avoided. As a contribution to this issue, the present book seeks to identify the linguistic problems having to do with English false friends. Particularly, this monograph presents a corpus-based analysis which aims to determine how English false friends affect the learners’ spoken and written production with a view to preventing and solving any linguistic and communication difficulties derived from the learners’ poor command of English false friends.

Generally speaking, this monograph deals with English false friends, the learning complexity of these words and the occurrence of these lexical items in learner language. However, before going into this in more detail, I will provide some background information on this phenomenon. In this respect, an important question to be considered is the following: why is it that identical words in different languages sometimes have different meanings? The section below provides some important clues which explain the existence of false friends between languages.

1.2   Brief Notes on the Origin of False Friends

A diachronic study suggests that most false friends are etymologically related terms which share a common source. As a matter of fact, a large number of false friends are cognate words (Van Roey, 1985; ← 12 | 13 → Crystal, 1994)3 which came to differ in meaning as a result of certain semantic changes occurring in the historical development of these words over time.

Obviously, languages change through time to adapt to the speakers’ needs and sociocultural contexts; and, vocabulary is the language component which is affected most by these changes. Thus, there are words which started being identical in meaning in various languages and have shifted their original senses through the years. It is the case of the English word lust and German Lust which share a common ancestor and sense, that of “pleasure.” However, the English word underwent specialization and is now used to refer to a “strong (sexual) desire.” If we focus on English and Spanish, we find examples of similar words which have come to have completely different senses with the course of time (English success vs. Spanish suceso); others have extended their original senses through different mechanisms of language change, such as metaphor (e.g. Spanish canguro and English kangaroo) and some others have undergone semantic processes, such as restriction/amplification, metonymy, euphemism, dysphemism, synecdoche, amelioration or pejoration (Chamizo Domínguez and Nerlich, 2002). Two interesting pairs of false friends are Spanish canguro and English kangaroo, and English barbarous and Spanish bárbaro whose semantic differences can be explained by appealing to two different processes: metaphorical amplification and semantic amelioration, respectively (Chamizo Domínguez, 2006: 426–427). In relation to the first pair of words, Spanish canguro and English kangaroo, both nouns refer to the Australian animal which carries its baby in a pouch. However and apart from that, the Spanish noun canguro has also developed the meaning of “babysitter” through metaphorical amplification. This sense is not present in English; thus, these nouns would be considered partial false friends in Spanish and English because they share some senses, but differ in some others. Concerning barbarous and bárbaro, these two adjectives mean “cruel” in English and Spanish. In addition, the Spanish adjective has undergone a process ← 13 | 14 → of semantic amelioration in its historical evolution and at present, it can be also used to mean “fantastic.” This sense is not conveyed by the English adjective. Therefore, there is a semantic asymmetry between English and Spanish which turns these words into false friends.

Although a great majority of false friends between languages have a common ancestor, there are some false friends which are the result of a mere morphological coincidence.4 These coincidental false friends, also called “chance pairs” in the literature, are illustrated by pairs of words like Portuguese chumbo vs. Spanish chumbo or English soap vs. Spanish sopa.

Regardless of the origin of these word pairs, all these examples show that word similarities between languages cannot always be trusted since similar words in different languages may have different senses. On the whole, the nature of false friends is deceptive and intrinsically complex.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (November)
False friends Learner corpora Lexicography Corpus Linguistics
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 348 pp.

Biographical notes

M Luisa Roca-Varela (Author)

M Luisa Roca-Varela holds a BA in English Language and Literature, an MA in English Linguistics and a PhD (with distinction) from the University of Santiago de Compostela. She was a visiting researcher at the Universities of Birmingham and Swansea. She has published papers in national and international journals and edited a refereed volume entitled Current Research in Applied Linguistics: Issues on Language and Cognition.


Title: False Friends in Learner Corpora
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
366 pages